An exceptionally rare gold-ground panel painting by the Medieval Italian master Cimabue made headlines in 2019 after it was discovered hanging above a stove in an elderly French woman’s kitchen. Offered by an auction house north of Paris in October of that year, the treasure sparked a bidding war, soaring past its estimate to sell for a whopping €24.2 million ($26.8 million) with fees.
The work had been scooped up a foreign buyer, believed to be the Alana collection of Italian “primitives” in Delaware, which is privately owned by Álvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán, according to The Art Newspaper. Shortly afterwards, France’s culture ministry declared The Mocking of Christ (c. 1280) to be a “national treasure” and implemented an export ban that barred it from leaving the country for 30 months. This bought enough time for the Louvre in Paris to raise the €24 million necessary to match the winning bid and acquire the work.
In a statement announcing the news, the Louvre’s director Laurence des Cars said the work “constitutes a crucial milestone in the history of art, marking the fascinating transition from icon to painting.” He confirmed that it will soon hang beside the Maestà, a larger tempera painting by Cimabue that also dates from around 1280 and is currently being restored. This piece has been in the museum’s collection since 1813, having been looted from Italy during the Napoleonic era.
Remarkably, the prized 700-year-old panel that was discovered hanging above a hotpot in the kitchen of an elderly French woman is a missing piece from an altarpiece depicting eight scenes from the Passion of Christ. It could be authenticated with certainty, because it had exactly the right dimensions, style, and colors, and the wood panel came from the same plank of poplar as the rest of the altarpiece. The panel even had matching wormholes. Its sale made the French woman a millionaire, but she died just two days later and her estate was split between three heirs.
The Louvre also announced that it has recently acquired Marine Terrace (1855), a drawing by the 19th-century French Romantic writer and politician Victor Hugo. In a statement, president of the Society of Friends of the Louvre, Louis-Antoine Prat, said the work will join eight more drawings already in the museum’s collection. “This unrivaled work bears witness to the longest romance of the century, the one between Victor Hugo and Juliette Drouet, since the initials of the two lovers intertwine while glowing in the sky,” he added, in reference to Hugo’s long-running affair with the French actor.
Both Cimabue’s The Mocking of Christ and Hugo’s Marine Terrace were acquired thanks to the museum’s patrons group, with particular support from the American property developer and philanthropist Harry Fath and his wife Linda, as well as with income from the brand license for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The paintings will be presented to the public in a special exhibition-event planned for early 2025.
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